The Trumpeter Of Doomsday

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At fifteen he began to keep a diary, and soon became known as the village ghost-writer (or “scribbler-general”), who provided not only letters but sometimes verses tor his less literate fellows. On January 3, 1803, his journal records his engagement to marry Miss Lucy P. Smith of Poultney, Vermont, some six miles from Low Hampton. The wedding took place six months later, and they began farming in his wife’s village. At Poultney, Miller was an inveterate frequenter of the town library, where he encountered for the first time the skeptical writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine.

Perplexed by doubts about his previous beliefs, he soon became, like many others in the same period, a deist and scoffer at the fundamentalism in which he had been reared. Unlike atheism, deism did not deny lhe existence of a Supreme Being, but portrayed Him as having refrained, after the creation, from any further interference in the orderly Newtonian processes of Nature. But to the orthodox clergy of the day, this was “an emanation of (he Devil,” one of the many varieties of heresy that constituted what they called “the Reign of Infidelity” in Vermont. As they saw it, along with dire events in Europe, such heresy portended “the last days” preceding the return of Christ to earth. That was the conclusion reached in 1811 by the Reverend Ethan Smith of Poultney in his Dissertation on the Prophecies relative to Anti-christ and the Last Times , in which he identified Napoleon as “the terrible head of the Roman beast,” and predicted the end of the world in the year 1866.

For twelve years William Miller remained a deist, and yet an exemplary citizen, a fact which refuted the orthodox dogma equating infidelity with personal immorality. A Mason of advanced degree, he became town constable and, in 1809, deputy sheriff of the county. A year later he turned to the military life, first as a lieutenant in the militia, then as a captain in the Regular Army. In the ensuing War of 1812, he underwent his baptism of fire at the Battle of Plattsburg on September 11, 1814, declaring a few hours afterward: “I am satisfied that I can fight. I know I am no coward … Three of my men are wounded by a shell which burst within two feet of me.”

In June of 1815, however, he emerged from the Army “completely disgusted with man’s public character,” and returned to farming, this time back at Low Hampton with his wife and little son. There he found existence “too monotonous … it appeared to me that there was nothing good on earth. Those things in which I had expected to find some solid good had deceived me. … The heavens were as brass over my head, and the earth as iron under my feet … I was truly wretched, but did not understand the cause.”

Recent studies in the psychology of sudden religious conversion, such as Dr. William Sargant’s Battle for the Mind , have thrown a great deal of light upon the characteristic tensions leading to Miller’s own dramatic about-face and those of some of his later converts. His earlier devout upbringing had provided him with a constant concern for the future, accompanied by what he called tormenting doubts “respecting our condition in another state.” Meanwhile, the silent reproaches of his wife and other pious relatives left him with feelings of guilt about his profane military language and infidel scoffings. While the works of Hume and Voltaire, Tom Paine and Ethan Alien had delighted his intellect, they had left his strong underlying emotional nature unsatisfied. In this state of undefined anxiety, Miller was ripe for that “escape from fear into love, from heaviness into joy” which a return to religion offered him.

The liberating vision came to him in 1816 at the little Baptist church of Low Hampton, whereupon, he tells us, “the Scriptures became a delight … my mind became settled and satisfied.” He soon became a pillar of the church, but his former deistic associates quickly challenged him to make good by logic his new conviction that the Bible contained none of the errors and contradictions which they found in it. Miller was now in the uncomfortable position of having to deny what he had stoutly affirmed, and to affirm what he had emphatically denied.

Consequently the Bible “became his chief study.” He “lost all taste for other reading” in his desperate concentration on the crucial issue of man’s immortality and future judgment. To this task he applied himself “with the most intense interest, whole nights as well as days being devoted to that object.” His only aids were the marginal references and a concordance, which enabled him to “examine all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion. Then by letting every word have its proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty.”